General Assembly Musing – #5

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In no uncertain terms, I feel the energy of this Assembly, and its energy centers around pledging to work against systemic racism.  Bold steps were taken Friday to address that very topic, voting overwhelmingly to affirm that Black lives matters, and confessing that the church has had a complicit part in perpetuating injustices to Black and Brown bodies.

It was impressive and decisive with which the Assembly was able to act, sometimes as a committee of the whole.  This all came about with a substitute motion, called Responding to the Sin of Racism and a Call to Action which was ultimately approved 407-72 (85% yes).  It was a resolution that was more strongly worded than the original motion proposed by the Committee on the Office of the General Assembly.

A number of commissioners spoke to how the original motion simply did not go far enough, and that the assembly needed to name, speak and act with regards to opposing white supremacy, white privilege, systemic racism and white silence.

Later in the day, the Assembly made a strong statement in support of our Native American community, seeking to repent for centuries of neglect and abuse, and also took swift action to support some specific concerns among our Native American churches, including lending assistance to Louis Fife and my other siblings in Christ at the Achena Presbyterian Church, and also Teddy and Juanita Tiger and my other siblings at the Cheyahra Presbyterian Church, both in Indian Nations Presbytery where I used to serve as pastor and stated clerk.

I was very happy with those outcomes.

I suspect these actions will be only the first steps in many as the echoes of the General Assembly are felt in the wider church.

In that respect, the imagery displayed by our new co-moderators is befitting.  Their election is no happenstance.  They embody the Assembly’s energy with regard to their hopes and dreams for a brighter (not whiter) future.

The image above is a Sankofa bird, prominently displayed behind our co-moderators at the podium.  Co-Moderator Elona Street-Stewart described the image as a: “Sankofa bird wading in the sacred waters of the Mississippi River. Two cultures come together – African and Indigenous ancestors guiding us forward.”

I love this image!  Part of the power of this traditional Ghanaian symbol, common among the Akan Tribe, is how this mythical bird has its feet firmly planted forward with its head turned backward.  The Akan believe strongly that the past must serve as a guide for planning the future, and that in the wisdom of learning from the past, a strong future is ensured.

Sankofa is a word from the Twi language in Ghana (Twi is spoken by many, many Presbyterians by the way!) and it translates as “Go back and get it.”  This powerful image of a bird with its head turned backward, often with a precious egg or a heart in its mouth, is also an image of what the church needs to do.  We need to go back and reclaim our true path laid out by Christ, who joined with the poor and afflicted, and confess ways in which we have fallen short of the inclusive glory of God.  We need to go back and undo systems which have disadvantaged whole groups of people, and have been used to disintegrate the unity of the Body of Christ.  We need to go back and start afresh.

The Akans believe that as time passes there must be movement and new learning.  It is only in new learning, with a knowledge of the past that must never be forgotten, that a march forward can proceed.

This is where we find ourselves as a Church.  We need to confess.  We need to turn away from the evils of the past.  And we must move forward, never forgetting the difficulties of our past.

Only then will God be able to use us as His instruments, and realize God’s bright new future for us ALL.

-Matt

General Assembly Musing – #4

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It has been a quiet week from General Assembly.  There was a Hands and Feet: Youth Rising Event.  There has been Bible Study, in a pre-recorded session.  There really hasn’t been much happening.  And that is the summary of GA so far: there hasn’t been much happening.

Of course this was the plan.  With a pandemic and a virtual GA came a simplified docket and schedule, and dealing with only essential business.  This GA is shaping up to be the quietest GA ever.  Of course that could change with the plenary sessions tomorrow and Saturday.  We will see.

One could look at this as a great gift.  One could also look at it as a missed opportunity.  After all, we as a denomination could have convened General Assembly virtually a couple months ago, descended into a virtual world of elaborate committee meetings, and come at the work in a remarkably different way.  This would have been refreshing and exciting.  It could also have produced bold, dynamic, or even daring legislation to move the church in profound new ways.  This would probably have created for a lot of fireworks, and most certainly brought legal challenges – at a ground-level, i.e. whether or not this virtual meeting was even legal.

So ultimately I side (as you might suspect a good Presbyterian would) with trusting our process and the recommendations of the committees that crafted this trajectory.  I trust the Holy Spirit is at work, paring down work in order for our hopes and dreams to blossom and flourish in other ways.

Of course, we will see.  God may yet have some surprises in store.

In the meantime, I am going to enjoy the quiet day of General Assembly (in fact there are NO events scheduled today).

And to those commissioners who may be suffering from dashed hopes or feelings of guilt, lament, or longing, rest in this thought: you elected two of the most amazing people in our denomination.  Greg is a visionary pastor at his church, and I trust will continue to be that for us on a national level.  Elona has been one of the strongest champions for racial justice and equity that I have ever known.  You elected them.  And they will be God’s megaphone into this daring new post-COVID world we will soon find ourselves in.  If that is all you did, you did enough.  They will embody the theme of this Assembly for you: Lament to Hope.  They will carry the mantle of racial justice forward for you.  They will heal divisions and shower the church with grace for you.

Below are a couple pictures of Cathi King, our Teaching Elder Commissioner, as she works from home earlier this week.  In fact in the bottom picture you can see her celebrating on Zoom right after Greg and Elona were elected on the first ballot.

She and Tom (who was featured in a previous blog) along with Chloe our Young Adult Advisory Delegate, will take up their work tomorrow for a long day that may go well into the night.  Pray for them, and for all our commissioners.  Also feel free, to join in, by watching at ga-pcusa.org. Opening Worship at 11am on Friday.

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May God grant us the grace of His way forward.

-Matt

General Assembly Musings – #3

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Last night, in a rescheduled session, the 224th General Assembly elected our new Co-Moderators.  Ruling Elder Elona Street-Stewart and Teaching Elder Gregory Bentley were overwhelmingly elected, garnering 304 votes and easily winning on the first ballot.

Elona is the executive of the Synod of Lakes and Prairies, and Greg is pastor of Fellowship Presbyterian Church in Huntsville, Alabama.

It was a moving election, even in its virtual format.  “I am hippopotamus happy and dinosaur delighted,” Bentley said. Elona’s screen was filled with family and joyful, tearful exasperations.

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They now take over as head of the Presbyterian church in the midst of two pandemics, the COVID-19 pandemic which triggered the virtual GA, and the other a racial pandemic that continues to tear at our country and our church, a pandemic that Elona and Greg are uniquely positioned to help address.  Elona is a descendant of the Delaware Nanticoke tribe and the first Native American to serve as General Assembly Moderator, and the first synod executive to be elected, who stated last night: “The world needs a church that has no fear over its diversity.”

Greg is a southern African-American pastor, who speaks with confident hope about our future: “We believe the denomination is headed in the right direction…. We want to heed Christ’s call to not be afraid … We want to run this race with perseverance, looking to Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith.”

During the answering of questions from commissioners they referenced this hopeful direction, namely the Matthew 25 invitation, which Maumee Valley Presbytery has accepted and is enrolled as a Matthew 25 Presbytery.

I also sense their time as Co-Moderators will be a time that focuses on building up relationships and our collective narrative.  As part of the preliminary documents leading up to their election Elona stated: “Our personal experiences teach so much about who we are, and they are key to building relations across our differences, experiences and our church through the hope of the Matthew 25 initiative….We believe it will take all that we are, individually and collectively, to continue to take on the important work God has for the PC(USA) to do.”

Immediately after their election, the two were installed.

The Rev. Marie Mainard O’Connell and Arthur Fullerton received 90 votes. The Rev. Sandra Hedrick and Moon Lee got 65 votes.

As a colleague of Elona for the last few years, I know what a powerful voice she is for the stories of Indigenous people.  And while I have not yet met Greg, I believe these two have a great chance to move our church forward in healing and reconciliation.

Joy!

Matt

General Assembly Musings – #2

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We are Rising!  It’s time.

This was the call I heard earlier today a number of times at the Poor People’s Campaign March on Washington that I joined.  That call came from a number of religious and community leaders, including our Stated Clerk of the General Assembly, J. Herbert Nelson.  While this morning and afternoon was not part of the official docket of the Assembly, we were encouraged to join in.  And I am glad I did.

2020-06-20 11.14.44Some may have come thinking it would be more of a celebration and coming together, but instead it was a call for Revival, a call to repentance, a call for a national moral turnaround.  As a Presbyterian minister who is comfortable with communal calls to confession, I felt right at home.

The agenda was clear, this is a movement committed to shifting the moral narrative of this country – shifting to a moral agenda that lifts all people by challenging the interlocking injustices of systemic racism, poverty, militarism, ecological devastation, denial of healthcare, and the distorted moral narrative that ties it all together.

It’s time to choose life.  It is time to do it together.  (In fact, it’s past time.)

I heard this call for transformative change sink deep into my heart as I heard one of the event’s coordinators shift from preaching to meddling near the end of the event, the Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II.  It was a good shift.

Let’s change this narrative and change this reality.  Because it is past time.

To those of you that think this is all a political protest in the streets and has nothing to do with Church, I feel compelled to remind you: This is all straight out of the Bible.  Jesus had a lot to say about how we treat those who are trapped in poverty and in the line of fire, and what we are to do about that.

Now is the time, and I am hopeful this Assembly will step up and proclaim that from the mountaintop, and cajole us into joining this new narrative God has for us in 2020 and beyond.  It is actually taken from an old narrative — a narrative where justice rolls down like waters for all people, where love is stronger than lies, and where God’s love will ultimately win.

It’s time.

-Matt

General Assembly Musings – #1

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This General Assembly is like no other.  It is our first virtual assembly.  But not by choice — because of pandemic-times.  Instead of coming to you from the floor of the Assembly in Baltimore, Maryland, I am at home in Ohio, joining virtually, like the almost 1,000 other participants in the 224th General Assembly.

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And it has already caused quite a shift in things.  

The Committee on Business Referral saw the challenges coming with attempting to do all this business on a digital platform, and so last night as the Assembly convened at 7pm, a variety of preliminary organizational motions came to the floor (adopting rules to function virtually, adopting a docket that simplifies the schedule, only dealing with essential business, etc.)

Not surprisingly, that took quite a bit of time.  So much so, the election of a new moderator did not happen as planned, and has been rescheduled for tonight at 7pm.  It was well past 11pm, before the docket was changed and a previously unscheduled meeting for 7pm tonight was slated.  GA224_Home_Mod_Feature_NoBckgrnd_800x600

Part of the reason for the delay was a number of commissioners whose voices began to rise up, talking about silenced voices because of the pair-down.  And while the Assembly ultimately streamlined and took most of the suggestions from the Committee on Business Referrals, I was already getting a sense of this Assembly – and a hungry to speak powerfully to the other global pandemic that is afoot in our land – a pandemic of systemic racism, poverty, and ecological devastation that is continuing to tear us apart as people in this country.

I will be providing updates throughout the Assembly, which convened yesterday evening, June 19, and will continue through June 27.

I encourage you to join the Assembly as it broadcasts live this evening and the Assembly elects a new set of co-moderators.: https://ga-pcusa.org/ 

I also encourage those of you who are interested in the work of the Assembly to visit PC-Biz which is the digital portal to find the docket, and all the business items: https://www.pc-biz.org/

Our leadership has encouraged us to be a part of the Poor People’s Campaign Virtual March on Washington in their National Call to Moral Revival that is currently happening today.  Perhaps you have seen the Watch Parties on Facebook, and my posts encouraging you to join me for that.  These reflections will most certainly weave into this Assembly.

Furthermore, and most importantly, I encourage you to join in prayer, to pray for all the commissioners of the Assembly, but particularly our commissioners, Tom Polker (Elder Commissioner, from Napoleon, OH – pictured below), Cathi King (Minister Commissioner, from Tecumseh, MI), and Chloe Smith (Young Adult Advisory Commissioner, from FPC Defiance, OH).

May the Spirit of Almighty God be with us.

-Matt

My Top Ten Worship Ideas in a Post-Quarantine (yet fragile public health) Time (i.e. arguably the rest of 2020!)

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We have been living in unprecedented times.  The Coronavirus, mandatory stay-at-home orders, social-distancing, and quarantine are all words many of us had not thought of much until recently.  These are challenging times as pastors, as worship leaders.  I have been blessed to be working among some of the most creative and hard-working pastors of my entire career, as General Presbyter of Maumee Valley Presbytery.  It has been an honor, and very humbling.  And yet, now we face an even greater challenge — building a bridge to sustainable worship and healthy congregations in a time when health experts are saying social-distancing is going to be important through Labor Day, and if no medication becomes readily available, possibly through 2021 until a vaccine is ready.  And so I offer a few thoughts, to get us thinking more long-term:

My Top Ten Worship Ideas in a Post-Quarantine (yet fragile public health) Time:

1) The early church met early in the morning every Sunday, down by the river, in secret (because Christianity was illegal and Sunday was a work day). I’m JUST SAYING.  Easter sunrise service EVERY WEEK?  Yes, maybe!

2) The early church in many areas built worship around house worship/agape love feasts. These were arguably all groups of 10 or fewer. JUST SAYING.  And FOOD!  I’m convinced this is how the early church grew.

3) Summer is usually pretty good weather in much of the USA. Outdoor worship. Front steps of the church? Parking lot?  Perhaps a “Drive-In Movie” concept with a stage and people still in their cars, or bring a lawn chair and come sit up and be a part of our socially-distant choir.  Church courtyard?  Oh yeah, and stop canceling when it’s not perfect conditions out…welcome to 2020.

4) Many of the Native American Presbyterians I have worshiped with had us outside in a round, socially distanced anyway, because we needed room to move, and sing, and invite God to be a part of our gathering.

5) Many of the churches I served as pastor had fellowship dinners for small groups (Tables of Eight, etc.). This combined with a pre-recorded YouTube sermon could be pretty effective worship, and cultivate worship leaders! Maybe the pastor would even rotate which small group she was a part of, and have Holy Communion with that group of 8-10. The church musician(s) might rotate too.

6) Zoom is lovely, but have you thought about equipping each family unit to worship on their own? Sometimes I wonder if we pastors like the control, and simply aren’t comfortable with a particularly Jewish/synagogue approach to learning and prayer that is more family-based.

7) Parks. I see visions of lawn chairs, natural amphitheaters, or maybe even a picnic, or picnic-to-go bags. (Sermon on the Mount? Feeding of the Multitude?  If it was good enough for Jesus…).

8) Is your sanctuary open for individual prayer throughout the week?

9) Splitting the congregation up, and having multiple worship services a week. (As a former church musician I am rolling my eyes at this one, but I am also thankful to be back to work and not furloughed!)

10) And finally…..Opening the church for in-person worship, all in masks, socially-distanced, and finally finding the benefit of having an overly large sanctuary for the smaller congregation that now worships there.

(Maybe a mix of these! It’s a lot of work for us worship leaders, but it can break open that “We’ve always done it this way” mentality we have been railing against for years. Now’s our chance!

Whatever you transition to, I hope someone is still broadcasting to FB Live, and a Watch Party starts for those who are unable to be at the in-person worship)

-Matt

Uber, I’m Not Impressed

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Companies like Uber, SquareSpace, and Airbnb have been very successful lately.  Their business model works.  And yet I have to be honest….I’m not all that impressed.  I mean, as a Church, we have been doing the same thing for over 2,000 years.  Yes, we have had limited success in Europe and North America lately.  Yes there are other times in history we have struggled.  Yes, we have made some serious missteps.  But our “brand” has endured.  Let me explain.

Take Uber, for instance.  At the end of the day, their company model is very simple – connect up people with things they need.  These days it is way more than a peer-to-peer ridesharing platform connecting up passengers with drivers.  There is UberEats, and also a bicycle-sharing program in many urban areas.  In almost 800 metropolitan areas all over the globe, they have spread like wild fire!

Uber has employed this very simple model with amazing success.  In 2019 Uber is estimated to have over 110 million users.  Its platform is through a simple mobile app, which in an organic way using algorithms and fixed prices, has a way of spreading itself.

This company has been in the news lately.  What better company to study the gender pay gap than with a company that in so many ways is gender-blind, using only algorithms and mobile GPS tracking?  Anyone can drive.  Anyone can ride.  But part of the news is how companies like this are struggling with liabilities, with reaching people with disabilities effectively, etc.

But back to the Church.  When you think of it, is the Church not a vehicle to connect up people to God?  Our whole trajectory is spiritual growth and connections, and despite the goals of some local churches, the overall trajectory of the Church is to get out of the way of the Holy Spirit and let God’s community flourish.  We, like Uber, connect people up (w/ God and each other).

Oh yes, it is messy and lacks centralized organizational structure.  But I am going to stand by our metrics, and our companies’ organizational structures.  With over 2.4 Billion followers of Jesus of Nazareth, we are the world’s largest religion.  The structures also have amazing redundancy and seem unstoppable.  Not even tyrannical regimes or governments can stop us.

Our model is simple: Connect up congregants with one another, and churches to churches, and with God, so that the Holy Spirit can transform lives.

I work for a presbytery.  This means my job on a daily basis is proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ who saves, redeems, and reconciles the world to Godself through ministries of witness, justice, and mercy.  But I get the privilege of seeing this on a larger scale, connecting ministers to ministers, churches to churches, and seeing a different way of “proclaiming” than when I was in a pulpit weekly and a local church daily.  I spend my time building and equipping vital congregations so that they can reach seekers and those in need, nurture disciples, and send apostles of our Lord into the world.

And unlike Uber, whose platforms can only be accessed through websites or mobile apps, I follow the CEO Jesus of Nazareth who can be accessed through Prayer.  It is a free app that doesn’t even require a cell phone.  This has allowed us to reach even rural communities, communities that struggle with poverty, and places Uber doesn’t dare go.  In fact, our great power is that often these are the places where our “brand” is the strongest.

We are an unstoppable force in places like the rural parts of Africa and South America, and other places in the Global South.  The Holy Spirit infrastructure is strong even in places where the country’s infrastructure is faltering.

We need to stop panicking in North America.  We spend so much time and energy worrying about church growth and bottom lines that we have forgotten that God is in charge – in fact has always been in charge.  We don’t need to worry.  We need to follow.

It would also benefit us, if rather than going off our separate ways, trying to follow the competitor, that we stay the course and come to realize that our God endures through all generations, and that our power comes not from following the bright lights and allure of money, but by following the bright Light of Jesus of Nazareth, who gave his life that others may live.

So sorry, Uber.  I’m not that impressed.  When you have endured and flourished for thousands of years give me a call, and I will be sure to be impressed.  Let me know when using your app leads to radical cultural transformations of justice and mercy, when it combats racism, oppression, and violence, when it gives new life.  Top that, Uber.

-Matt